Mention you’re going boating in Phoenix and you’ll probably get a few strange looks. Phoenix may be called the Valley of the Sun, and it may sit in the middle of a desert, but locals know there’s actually a ton of water around — if you know where to look. It’s easier than you think to spend your day swimming, fishing, boating, or tubing nearby and still make it back in time for dinner. Here are five lakes and rivers that are an easy drive from Phoenix and provide a relaxing day on the water.
1. Kayak at Lake Pleasant Regional Park.
Lake Pleasant Regional Park is where Phoenicians quietly slip through the still water into a cove surrounded by desert canyons. Lake Pleasant, a 10,000-acre reservoir on the northwest border of Phoenix and Peoria, offers a number of outdoor adventure activities like hiking and camping, but most people come for a day on the water. The lake has two marinas and two separate boat launching ramps.
Pleasant Harbor Marina sits on the southeast side of the reservoir and is only 40 minutes from downtown Phoenix. Here you can rent single or tandem kayaks and stand-up paddleboards from Go Paddle AZ and explore the 100 miles of shoreline. Rentals are by the hour and you can reserve them online or on the day of your visit. Yoga fans and others looking to experience the zen of the surrounding Sonoran Desert may be interested in stand-up paddleboard yoga classes offered on certain weekend days in summer. For a bit of powered adventure, Boats4Rent rents jet skis and pontoon boats by the hour, half day, or full day.
On the other side of the lake is Scorpion Bay Marina, which also rents kayaks as well as pontoon boats, jet skis, sport boats, and water toys like wakeboards and water skis. Rentals are available from sunrise to sunset, and both marinas have restaurants, so you can recharge after spending the day working out those arm muscles while paddling around the lake.
2. Tube down the Salt River.
Tubing on the Salt River is practically a summer rite of passage for Phoenicians. Usually starting mid-May and going through Labor Day, the best spot is in Tonto National Forest, just east of Mesa. The Salt River Tubing company offers leisurely trips down the Lower Salt River that can last two, three, or five hours. Tubing is available for adults and children that are over eight years old and four feet tall (kids must meet both guidelines in order to ride). They even allow you to bring coolers with food and beverages — including alcohol — but no glass containers. Just make sure to take any trash out with you.
For the 2019 season, the $17 tubing fee includes parking, tube rental, and a shuttle up the river to the launch site after your ride. It’s open daily from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM depending on the weather. The last tube rental is 1:00 PM, but you can continue to float down the river at your leisure until 5:00 PM. It even hosts themed weekends such as pirate day, superhero day, and rodeo day. There’s not a lot of shade on this river, however, so don’t forget sunscreen and a hat. Keep an eye out for wild horses along the banks.
3. Fish on Saguaro Lake.
There are some great fishing spots outside of Phoenix, such as Saguaro Lake. This lake is a 1,200-acre reservoir located 45 minutes east of Scottsdale in Tonto National Forest. It’s a deep canyon lake, one of several reservoirs made by damming the Salt River back in the early to mid-1900s, and has 22 miles of shoreline with plenty of views of the iconic saguaro cacti — because it’s still the desert, after all. The lake is stocked with trout in winter by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and fish habitat structures have been built to make it easy for those who want to fish for bass, trout, walleye, and catfish.
The marina is home to Precision Marine, which rents pontoon and fishing boats, as well as fishing equipment. If sightseeing is more your thing, take a cruise on the Desert Belle, a 90-minute narrated boat tour, to learn about the history, wildlife, and geography of the region while leisurely traveling around the lake. You can even make this a full weekend adventure by staying at one of the 10 sites at Bagley Flat Campground that are only accessible by boat.
4. Jet ski on Bartlett Lake.
A little farther north of the city sits Bartlett Lake, a reservoir on the Verde River 20 miles east of the town of Carefree. This reservoir is one of the larger lakes in Tonto National Forest with 2,815 acres of water surface that’s usable for boating. Surrounded by desert mountains and cool blue water, this is the perfect lake to make waves while zipping around on a jet ski.
Bartlett Lake Marina is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily and rents jet skis to guests 21 and older for two- and four-hour intervals. The jet skis are launched from their private dock, so you can get on the water right away. The marina also provides half day and full day pontoon, sport, and fishing boat rentals, as well as kayaks or wakeboards if that’s more your style. Reservations are recommended for half- and full-day boat rentals, but hourly rentals are available for walk-up customers. It’s another great place for a weekend adventure with shoreline camping available and nearby hiking trails in Tonto National Forest.
5. Boat on Canyon Lake.
Canyon Lake is only 45 miles from Phoenix in the Superstition Wilderness, less than an hour’s drive. It’s open year-round and features desert cliffs, impressive rock formations, and multiple coves that are great for fishing. You can easily spend your day cruising around the lake, water skier in tow, or rent a pontoon boat for a day of relaxing with your crew. Stop at Precision Marine at Canyon Lake Marina for boat and water ski rentals. Boats can be rented by the hour, half day, or full day, and reservations are recommended.
If you prefer a quieter time on the water, sign up for a sightseeing or dinner cruise around the lake on the Dolly Steamboat, or head to the east end of the lake, where the water winds through desert canyons and is closed to water skiing, for scenery and seclusion. This peaceful area is the perfect location to try to spot some of the local wildlife in the surrounding landscape. Canyon Lake is busy most weekends in summer, so come early to get parking and make reservations for any rentals.